Legal Debate Over Boston Terror Suspect’s Miranda Rights Continues

The White House announced on Monday that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will not be treated as an enemy combatant, which adds more nuance to the legal debate regarding the 19-year-old terror suspect’s legal rights.

After being taken into custody, federal authorities said Tsarnaev, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen, was not read his Miranda rights. Law enforcement cited the public safety exception, which was first carved out in a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court decision in the New York v. Quarles case.

In that situation, police questioned an assailant about the location of a weapon  before reading his Miranda rights.

University of Louisville Law Professor Russ Weaver told WFPL the exception defined in the Quarles case is rarely used and remains legally controversial

“There have been very few decisions applying that ruling since then so nobody really knows what it means. The question is when is it going to be applied and what does it mean? I don’t think anybody really knows,” he said.

“You can make an argument for a case like this, saying ‘Look there may be a bombing ring or could be other things being plotted so there is a public safety reason for not applying Miranda in this situation.’”

The executive director of the national ACLU quickly issued a statement saying every criminal defendant is entitled to Miranda rights and to deny him such was un-American. But others such as Republican U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain have said they believe Tsarnaev should be held under the laws of war.

Polls show 51 percent of Americans think terror suspects should be given Miranda rights to protect Fifth Amendment rights. But 43 percent oppose the idea.

What’s clear is that as terrorism has come to the forefront of American politics, this legal question of Miranda rights regarding suspects comes up more and more.

In 2010, Attorney General Eric Holder supported the idea to limit Miranda for alleged terrorists and asked Congress to loosen the rules. Three years ago, President Obama’s advisers indicated the administration was open to scaling back those rights when it came to questioning terror suspects.

From The New York Times:

In an interview on CNN, (David) Axelrod said Mr. Obama was “open to looking at” changing the Miranda rule, which generally bans prosecutors from using as evidence statements made by suspects in custody before they have been warned that they have a right to remain silent and to consult a lawyer. “There may be some things that have to be done,” Mr. Axelrod said. “Certainly we’re willing to talk to Congress about that. But they would be in the area of adjustments, not a wholesale revision.”

Politically this could be somewhat of a surprise to Obama supporters.

However, legal observers point out the judicial branch has been chipping away at Miranda for decades with rulings that say simply questioning a suspect is not a violation of the Fifth Amendment.

“You have to be aware that Miranda is not well regarded by the (Supreme) Court,” says Weaver. “The court sort of regards it as a prophylactic rule, in other words it’s not something absolutely mandated by the Constitution. We apply it to Fifth Amendment rights.”

Asked if not reading Miranda could result in the Tsarnaev case being thrown out as some have suggested or worried, Weaver says that is highly unlike given the mounting evidence.

“The case would never be thrown out just on that basis. All you would do is exclude any evidence obtained from the confession. Quite frankly, in this case from what I know of it they have plenty of evidence against this guy,” he says. “And so they’re not concerned about the evidence as much as they are about uncovering other plots.”

(Image via Shutterstock.)

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